Language Research in Practice - Women in the "Waiting Room"

It is more difficult for doctors to diagnose complex sources of pain in women than in men and the reasons for this are rooted in language use. This finding, which is of major importance for both doctors and patients, is revealed by a now completed project by the FWF Austrian Science Fund. The results of this research into how the two genders typically describe pain are to be presented at the 2nd International Congress of Gender Medicine on 2nd and 3rd June in Vienna.

Due to communication difficulties women are at disadvantage when it comes to the treatment of pain. © Use of this photo for editorial purposes is free of charge, subject to attribution: PR&D Public Relations for Research & Development

For quite some time, we have all known that men are from Mars and women from Venus, but scientific research has now proven that, when it comes to describing complex pain, men and women are worlds apart. This finding comes from studies that investigated patients suffering from complex headaches. While female patients give doctors brief and vague illustrations of their complaints, men describe their pain in an extremely concrete manner. This means that male patients are at an advantage when it comes to treatment as an accurate analysis of pain is essential for both diagnosis and therapy.

Lack of Communication
A team headed by Prof. Florian Menz of the Department of Linguistics at the University of Vienna established that these different approaches to describing pain are caused by language barriers. Prof. Menz believes that "Women are rather vague and less detailed when portraying their pain, often focusing on the day-to-day situations in which the pain occurs. However, this does not constitute a description of pain in medical terms, as doctors develop a largely symptom-oriented language over the course of their careers. Men, on the other hand, describe their pain in very concrete terms focusing on their symptoms, which is very compatible with medical diagnostics and makes it easier for doctor and patient to understand one another."

By investigating other patients suffering from chronic pain, the study showed that doctor-patient communication is also inadequate on other levels and leads to misunderstandings. While doctors are again primarily concerned with analysing pain when they speak to patients, the patients themselves - who have lived with their pain for a number of years - are more focused on treatment options for example. In such a scenario, doctor-patient discussions often fall short of patient expectations, as they are keen to be involved in the decision-making process.

The Outpatients Clinic as a Laboratory
These problems in communicating complex pain were only uncovered thanks to detailed linguistic analysis conducted in cooperation with the headache outpatient clinic at Vienna General Hospital, as project worker Dr. Johanna Lalouschek explains: "Our team recorded almost 100 doctor-patient discussions on tape and mostly on video, too. As part of the project, we also produced the first systematic illustration of how German-speaking patients describe their pain when there are no doctors present. This also enabled us to determine that women only describe their complaints in this vague and less detailed manner when speaking to doctors. When there are no doctors present, the language barrier falls away and women are much more open and detailed when describing their pain."

The team had already uncovered indications that men and women describe chest pain related to coronary heart disease in different ways. The recently completed project now reveals that these gender-specific differences also apply to complex types of pain. The collective research results will now be presented at the International Congress of Gender Medicine taking place on 2nd and 3rd June in Vienna. The team's long-term aim is to tackle the linguistic problems uncovered in the FWF project and make doctors aware of the issue.

Scientific Contact
Prof. Florian Menz
University of Vienna
Department of Linguistics
Berggasse 11
1090 Wien, Austria
T +43 / 1 / 4277 - 417 21

Austrian Science Fund FWF
Mag. Stefan Bernhardt

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